The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Editorial_May 2006
MAY, 2006 - VOLUME 14 NO.5

Money Speaks Louder than Words


Investment speaks louder than people. While the Burmese are struggling to loosen the stranglehold the military dictatorship has on Burma, recent foreign investment in the country has been massive, and it is these funds that keep the regime in power.


Asean, the EU and a host of other countries have used diplomatic channels to “voice” their “disapproval” of the regime. Their collective tone has been soft. Meaningless statements like “distance ourselves,” “meaningful engagement,” “demonstrated progress” and a “soft-approach” hardening to “firmer” have been nothing more than a smokescreen, while investment in Burma surged. Diplomatic posturing has achieved nothing in the 17 years since Aung San Suu Kyi was first arrested a year before winning the 1990 election. She is still under house arrest and tens of thousands of ethnic people are still being forced from their burning homes.


Most of the foreign investment is from corporations and countries eager to get their hands on Burma’s natural resources. China and India have signed deals and an energy alliance worth millions of dollars to siphon Burma’s oil and gas resources. Both countries share borders with Burma and therefore the host of problems the rogue nation exports. Illicit drugs, disease and displaced people are a constant flow, and present national security threats to neighbors. India—the world’s biggest democracy, and once an outspoken critic of the regime— has backflipped as its politicians, generals and corporations mouth “investment” and “national interest”.


Ethnic armed groups fighting the regime on the Indian-Burmese border have been caught in a hard place between an unsympathetic India and a vicious regime determined to snuff them out. India, concerned with Burma’s dependency on China, has started to sell military hardware, including fighter jets, to the regime. Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam confirmed his country’s ongoing commitment to Burma when he recently said it needed to increase its present level of bilateral trade from around US $500 million to $2 billion by 2008.


Burma is not an intrinsically poor country. It is resource-rich, but has been plundered by the regime at the expense of the Burmese people. The local currency, the kyat, is virtually worthless against other currencies. Inflation continues to skyrocket and essential foodstuffs are almost priced out of reach of workers. In Burma, development equals forced labor, land confiscation and extortion of money. Villagers supply everything. The law of the gun rules Burma and having political dialogue is meaningless while its legal processes and people’s rights are not respected.  The Burmese people had better get used to it—they are on their own. It seems sympathetic whispers and handshakes from the international community are all they will get when trade deals worth billions are up for grabs.



NLD’s Time Not Yet Up


Burma’s military rulers are well-versed in sidelining the opposition National League for Democracy, but Information Minister Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan’s combative performance in April linking the party to terrorism is unlikely to spell the end of the NLD. The junta has always made survival its number one priority, closely followed by face-saving. Last month’s stage-managed outburst against the NLD was no different.


With the deadline for a response to the NLD’s proposal to hold a dialogue and reconvene parliament fast approaching before April’s Water Festival, the junta’s propaganda machine went into overdrive. The state-run press ran regular articles saying why the proposal, which also included the NLD’s recognition of the regime as a de jure government, was not acceptable. The Burmese people were made aware that the offer would not lead to anything. But having lived under the regime for 18 years, they already knew what would happen. The only question was how the military would officially decline the NLD’s offer.


Predictably the junta chose to combine its usual method of attack, with its more recent approach of holding a press conference with lots of “evidence.” Out came the photographs and the colorful diagrams linking various “terrorist groups” to the NLD, with foreign diplomats thrown in to add more weight to proceedings.


Photographers snapped the “evidence” while their reporter colleagues eagerly wrote down all that was being fed to them. About a week later, the same information was repackaged by the private press and sent to the chief censor. Everyone could read it for himself—the NLD was rubbing shoulders with terrorists. Only in the real outside world did the claim receive any scrutiny.


Now that the junta feels that it has successfully cast aside the unwanted questions of a dialogue with the NLD and convening a parliament—although it will continue to harass the NLD—threats that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party will be outlawed are unlikely to come to much. New state-sponsored reports of mass resignations from the NLD are similar to past propaganda about mass enrolment in the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Association.


Although the junta has a predisposition to self-delusion, it must be aware that the slow demise of the NLD remains a more subtle option than sudden death. With the international spotlight on the Burmese regime more than ever these days, obliteration of the opposition would not look good.


The question, though, is can the NLD overcome its latest setback and remain in the fray, thus disproving the junta’s recent claim to visiting Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar that it is now “irrelevant.” The party’s most recent offer to the junta—while more realistic and reasonable than anything the government has ever suggested to overcome the political stalemate—was never likely to be accepted. Now that it has been dismissed, it remains to be seen whether the party will be able to come up with an offer which the junta will find more difficult to ignore.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |